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16 April 2015

Ukip don’t deserve their media prominence. Here’s the proof

Which came first, the breakthrough or the BBC appearances? An academic suggests that Ukip are getting a helping hand from the press.

By Justin Murphy

Media elites suggest that Ukip deserves high levels of media coverage on account of public support for the party. But what if support for Ukip is generated by disproportionate media coverage in the first place? A look at the evidence raises serious questions about the media’s fascination with Ukip.

It is commonly suggested by critics as well as politicians that the media is disproportionately fascinated by Ukip. This is uncontroversial in the sense that the quantity of Ukip’s media coverage is simply much greater than the coverage of other small parties on the right as well as the left. But the stated position of UK media regulator Ofcom and the BBC suggests that UKIP deserves special attention relative to other small parties on account of trends in public support for the party.

There is a crucial problem with the argument that Ukip deserves high levels of media coverage on account of public support for the party. If current levels of public support for Ukip are partially driven by previously disproportionate media coverage, statements by Ofcom and BBC notwithstanding, current privileges such as inclusion in the television debates may not be innocently responsive to public support for Ukip but perhaps only the most recent instance of how the media actively props up that public support. So which one is it? Is the media’s coverage of Ukip simply a function of previous and current public support, or is current public support an artifict of past media coverage, or both?

To explore this question more rigorously, I gathered monthly polling data measuring public support for Ukip and a count of national newspaper reports mentioning Ukip for every month since the beginning of 2004. The polling data is from Ipsos-MORI and the newspaper data is from the database Nexis. While I find some evidence that media coverage may be partially driven by public support for Ukip, I also find evidence that media coverage may independently generate some portion of Ukip’s public support. In other words, there may be some justification to statements by Ofcom and BBC that treatment of Ukip is justified by public support for the party, but this rationale for privileging of Ukip in the media may be ultimately unjustified because previously disproportionate media fascination with Ukip may have played a crucial role in current levels of public support. Preliminary statistical research currently underway is also consistent with this latter argument.

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In the history of Ukip, it is possible to identify at least two periods of media coverage which are not justified by dynamics of public support, but which may have helped generate subsequent increases in public support.

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First, the data reveal that Ukip’s first large increase in public support, from November 2012 to April 2013, is preceded by an increase in media coverage not itself warranted by changes in public support. From February to June 2012, public support increases from only 2% to 6%, and media coverage increases proportionately and closely behind. Then coverage and support decrease, though to slightly higher levels than before. So far, this is as we would expect if the quantity of media coverage responds to changes in public support. Also, notably, this small spike in support is historically unremarkable; it is similarly sized to Ukip’s previous, short-lived spikes in public support, and media coverage rises and falls with it just as it had during the previous spikes in support.

What is unique about this cycle of support and coverage begins in August 2012. In the next four months, media coverage spikes from 110 articles in August to 948 articles in November, the highest amount of coverage Ukip had ever received in one month. This increase in media coverage occurrs at a time when a historically unremarkable spike in support appears to be on its equally unremarkable downward trajectory, suggesting nothing more than the typical tendency for Ukip’s short-run spikes to equilibrate back to an otherwise quite low baseline level. While it is impossible to prove that this particular increase in coverage caused the large increase in support following it, the timing seems more consistent with this interpretation than the interpretation that public support is driving media coverage. Of course, both may very well be true but nonetheless this is a strong example of exceptional media coverage not simply reducible to dynamics of public support.

Second, despite dramatically and durably decreasing public support from April to November 2013, media coverage increases briefly from July to September before beginning its largest climb to date in October 2013. It is only after this extraordinary media surge begins in October that public support turns upward again. The increase in public support observed from November 2013 until April 2014 is closely contemporaneous with the media increase, and the peak of the media increase does follow the peak of the increase in support, which is consistent with the argument that the intensity of media coverage responds to changes in public support. But similar to the first example, the data here suggest that the real prime mover in the November 2013 upturn of public support may be the media’s persistent fascination with Ukip despite the large secular decline in support from April to November 2013.

It is also worth noting that the most intense month of media coverage in Ukip’s history, the 3,719 articles mentioning Ukip in May 2014, cannot be explained by trends in public support because the rise in support which this media increase corresponds to is merely a return to the level of April 2013. The extra 727 articles in May 2014 relative to May 2013 is even harder to explain with public support because the first increase of Ukip support to this level should be much more newsworthy in principle than the second time around. Finally, the exceptionally intense media coverage of October 2014 does appear to track the fluctations in support at that time, but it is very hard to resist the interpretation that the media here is questionably over-responsive to changes in public support: 3,368 articles in one month cannot be accounted for by the hardly remarkable news story that public support has revolved around 13% for the previous 7 months.

In summary, at least two crucial moments in the history of Ukip appear inconsistent with the self-defense of media elites that the privileging of Ukip in the media is only based on dynamics of public support. And although no analysis of this data can prove that media coverage of Ukip has driven public support to its current levels, the data are consistent with the argument that current levels of Ukip support have been driven partially by past levels of disproportionate media coverage which cannot in turn be explained by public support.

It is disingenuous of Ofcom and BBC to give Ukip media privileges on the basis of public support when the data suggest that earlier rounds of disproportionate media attention are likely to be one crucial driver of current Ukip support. More importantly, if the data presented here are any guide, reporters covering Ukip may want to question the political implications of their fascination.

Justin Murphy is Assistant Professor in Politics and International Relations at University of Southampton. He tweets as @jmrphy.